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NPR-A Legacy Wells Targeted for Cleanup

Funding for BLM resulted in strategic plan


BLM Map of NPR-A legacy wells.

Map courtesy of BLM

This summer the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is targeting surface cleanup of high priority legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), with the majority of the remediation work to be contracted for winter. Of these 136 abandoned exploratory and scientific wells drilled by the federal government between 1944 and 1982, only 16 have been properly plugged and remediated to Alaska standards.

BLM became responsible for managing the NPR-A in 1976 and in 1982 inherited the responsibility to assess, plug, and clean up the abandoned wells. Today 18 wells are still being used by US Geological Survey for monitoring climate change. Some of the remaining wells are in various conditions of non-compliance with state law and require BLM remediation.

Cathy Foerster, Commissioner for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC), has been working to get BLM to take responsibility for the cleanup since joining AOGCC in 2005. BLM told Foerster the agency had remediated the worst of the wells and had no money and no plans to do anything further.

“I pointed out to them that the wells were in violation of several Alaska regulations—and probably just as many federal regulations,” Foerster says. “The then-coordinator told me that since we were both regulatory bodies, the AOGCC shouldn’t hold the BLM to the same standards we hold industry to. My response was, if we held them [BLM] to a different standard, it should be a higher one.

“What most surprised me about the issue were the federal government’s cavalier attitude and hypocrisy,” Foerster says. “They turned their backs on wells leaking hydrocarbon liquids and gases and on sites littered with all kinds of hazardous and non-hazardous debris. Meanwhile they took steps to prohibit responsible oil and gas companies from developing any of ANWR and most of the NPR-A to ‘protect’ those areas from exactly the sort of thing the government has done and is allowing to continue in exactly the same areas.” Excuses given to Foerster ranged from “it’s too expensive” to “they’re in the middle of nowhere and not hurting anyone.”


Umiat #7 NPR-A legacy well during plug and abandonment work in 2012 winter.

Inset shows the marker plate identifying the well.

Photos courtesy of BLM

Raising Awareness

Realizing that there was no way to get BLM to take responsibility for the cleanup, Foerster decided to put the issue up for public scrutiny by taking it to the Alaska State Legislature, crossing paths with Representative Charisse Millett. “I wanted to know how to help BLM,” Millett says. “Cathy thought a resolution to point out the problem would be the best approach. Because Senator Murkowski’s office was also involved, the three of us wrote up a resolution raising awareness of the wells, and it passed unanimously.”

“Alaskans, myself included, have known about the legacy wells since the 1980s,” US Senator Lisa Murkowski says. “The last exploratory well the federal government actually drilled in the NPR-A was in 1981, and since then they’ve properly plugged 16 of 136 wells… If it were a private operator, and not the federal government, that was responsible for these abandoned wells, they’d owe the state of Alaska millions of dollars in environmental fines. It’s disappointing. It’s unacceptable.”

Millett carried two resolutions in 2012 and 2013, respectively, urging BLM to properly plug the legacy wells as soon as possible in order to protect the environment in the Arctic region. The 2013 resolution further urged BLM to open new areas of the NPR-A for environmentally responsible oil and gas development. In 2013, the resolution also replaced the term “legacy” with “travesty” to make it clear nothing about the wells qualifies them for historic site designation and to prevent any misconception that the wells were harmless.

At the urging of Murkowski, a full committee hearing was called by the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which she is a ranking member. Millett and Foerster both testified. “We brought pictures of some of the wells and core wells from the sites—trash, barrels, piping, the worst of the worst,” Millett says. “The travesty is that folks in the North Slope live in proximity to these wells.”

After the energy hearing, AOGCC and BLM began coordinating and categorizing the wells to get agreement on how to move forward. The result was BLM’s 2013 Legacy Well Summary Report, which took all existing information from industry and other publications and combined it to rank each site according to specific criteria.

“That hearing proved to be the crucial step in putting the spotlight back on these abandoned legacy wells and putting us on the path toward real resolution,” Murkowski says. “Representative Millett and Cathy Foerster have been championing the legacy well issue for a long time. They were both instrumental in keeping it on the radar at home in Alaska, and I was able to do the same here in Washington.”


Funding Mechanism

At the state level, BLM has planned potential timeframes to approach the cleanup, but several factors made even starting a path extremely difficult: the remoteness of the sites, procuring the necessary equipment and proper staff with expertise to plug wells or perform site remediation—often in competition with industry—and the funding.

“Legacy wells have been a priority for us for quite some time,” says Erin Curtis, public affairs chief at BLM in Alaska. “It’s a matter of having only a certain amount of funding provided to us per year to clean up. The good news is that Senator Murkowski and Congress were able to find a much larger funding stream—a big chunk—that will allow us to make serious headway in a much quicker timeframe. It’s always been a priority for us. We’re glad that we have the funding now so that we can go out and make a big difference in a much shorter time.”

Robert Brumbaugh, BLM Geologist, elaborated by adding, “In the past, we’ve only been given money for emergency-type funding for a situation. This is first time that we’ve really had a large dollar amount to plan for five years out. So we are going to see a lot of headway with this funding. This will be the biggest legacy well effort ever.”

That “big chunk” came last year when Murkowski included a $50 million rider in the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. “We had been looking for ways to come up with the funding BLM said they were lacking—that was the excuse they were giving Alaskans as to why those legacy wells weren’t being addressed,” Murkowski says. “The opportunity to include a legacy well funding mechanism within the Helium Act was an idea I had and, thankfully, was able to see through. My hope is that the funding takes away any excuse BLM had for not cleaning up the wells.”


Umiat #7 NPR-A legacy well sticking up from the tundra before it was plugged in 2012.

BLM photo

Strategic Plan

Infused with the funding and inspired by Murkowski’s creative thinking to obtain it, BLM developed their 2013 Strategic Plan from the 2013 Legacy Well Summary Report; the Strategic Plan is the basis of this summer’s cleanup approach. “The effort that we put forth in 2013 was probably the most all-encompassing of anything that we’ve done to date for legacy wells. There’s a lot of data that went into those [two reports],” Brumbaugh says. The Strategic Plan assesses the surface and subsurface risks, as well as risks to public health, safety, and the environment, and identifies the highest priority wells in need of action.

“We plan to initiate our effort with the highest priority wells, clustering with other nearby wells to maximize our spending dollars,” Brumbaugh says. “We have three primary clusters: the Umiat cluster that includes six wells, the Barrow cluster that includes seven wells, and a Simpson Peninsula cluster of seven wells. Assuming we take care of those clusters first, we will have twenty wells that will be handled this summer.” BLM will also coordinate with the North Slope Borough to assess opportunities for equipment sharing to further reduce costs.

The BLM is in the process of putting together an acquisition team to determine the best approach to streamline the cleanup process. For this summer, BLM has three wells with high surface risk targeted for cleanup. “One is the poster child of all legacy wells,” Brumbaugh says. “Simpson core test #26. It’s an oil seep with some drums. We will remove the surface debris and conduct sampling at Simpson core test #26, #30, and #30a. All three wells are within a mile of each other.” Due to the sensitivity of the tundra, the ideal time for subsurface cleanup work is during winter using ice roads. The BLM will coordinate with the North Slope Borough to assess opportunities for equipment sharing to reduce costs.

“Completing the strategic plan has given us the opportunity to really think through how best to tackle these [sites] in as efficient a path as possible given their remoteness and the unique situations at each well,” Curtis says. “Folks like Rob [Brumbaugh] were able to prioritize, working hand in hand with the state of Alaska, making sure that our priorities were synced up as much as possible and then setting the path forward. I think it’s all going to be good news.” 

Margaret Sharpe writes from Palmer.

This first appeared in the August 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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